Why contraception matters, even for Protestants

Between various legal challenges and Mike Huckabee’s ill-advised statements, contraception is making headlines again. For many Christians, contraception is an issue only if it is abortifacient. But Protestants would do well to think through contraception from a broader moral and theological standpoint. The issue is connected to our view of the human person, the nature of human sexuality and marriage and our view of creation. With a view toward furthering discussion, here are some questions about contraception that Protestants should be asking.

Why do many Protestants think of this as a “Catholic” issue?

Until the Lambeth Conference of 1930, Protestants were with the Roman Catholics on this issue. Protestants agreed that procreation was one of the goals of marriage and that artificial contraception was a sinful violation of this goal. Most Protestants today, however, do not even know that contraception has been considered a moral issue throughout church history. There are good Christian grounds for reassessing our position, even if it means we sound like good Catholics. Re-opening this issue doesn’t mean we’ll become Catholic; it just means we might become old-school Protestants.

Are our bodies meant to say something in sexual intercourse?

Most Protestants would say yes, which is why sex outside of marriage is sin: we are saying something with our bodies that we are not saying with our lives, as whole persons. If sexual intercourse “says something” in and through the language of the body, then artificially sterilizing ourselves does change what is being said.

When Protestants say that use of contraception is a “private, disputable matter,” then they come very close to saying that sexual intercourse only has the meaning that the participants subjectively ascribe to it. If sex is given meaning only by the minds involved, not the bodies, then anything goes, so long as it is consensual. But if consent is our only standard, then we are the producers of meaning (which is why sex is both cheapened and given more weight than it can possibly bear in our culture).

So what is being said if we close down the life-giving possibilities of our own bodies? Protestants must answer this question. With Catholics, we should affirm that the procreative aspect is not the exclusive meaning of intercourse; it certainly has a unitive function. The question is whether we can completely divorce the unitive and procreative meanings without distorting what our bodies should say in intercourse.

What are the criteria for “stewardship?”

Many Protestants appeal to the principles of stewardship to justify contraception. But what needs to be clarified is further criteria and coherence about what qualifies as good stewardship. For example, if we have the power of existence and non-existence over our potential children, then why not also the power to genetically modify them so that they will be healthier, smarter or simply more attractive? Or if contraception is morally wrong and bad stewardship when done from motives of selfishness, luxury or convenience, then who is providing pastoral guidance to help us understand what that looks like in concrete circumstances?

What vision of the body, and therefore of God’s creation, is entailed in contraception?

I was drawn to the Reformed tradition (especially the Calvinism of Abraham Kuyper) because of its robust affirmation of the goodness of creation, including the body. I find myself drawn to the Catholic theology of the body and traditional Protestant teaching on contraception because of the way it affirms the totality and mystery of who we are as humans, body and soul. It also affirms the sacramental nature of creation, that the world is charged with the grandeur of God, and that we - our bodies, our very selves - participate in God’s life-giving love. It refuses to reduce human bodies and human sexuality to mere biology and proclaims that, as God's image-bearers, our entire being is shot through with the self-giving mystery of love and life. Whether Protestant or Catholic, our call is to revel in that.

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There’s a lot of good food for thought in this short post. Thank you, Branson, for touching on this issue. Like you, I quite agree with you that this is a question Protestants can (and should) think about and “reason together” over as Protestants.

I don’t want to put a whole blog-length reply in the comments (and I think I could, on this topic!), but I do think it’s worth looking a little more closely at your statement The question is whether we can completely divorce the unitive and procreative meanings without distorting what our bodies should say in intercourse. I’m not sure I agree with it entirely. Sterile people (either from infertility or age) can have meaningful sex, and I’d say the sex is meaningful for much the same reason that a fertile married couple’s sex is meaningful. This seems to be true even if they know there’s an impossibility to having a child, and even if we’re talking about a couple that only found each other in their twilight years - so it’s not just a shadow of when the sex had that procreative role. I’d also wager you get bodies saying that same thing through sex when the sex act itself couldn’t possibly lead to procreation. (I won’t be explicit here, but I’m assuming someone who’s sat through sex ed can think of intimate activities spouses might share that wouldn’t lead to any possibility of sperm meeting egg.) The fact that you know your sexual act can’t possibly lead to procreation doesn’t seem to change the unifying role of sex without there being any possibility of procreation. Given all that, I’m not sure why the fact that it’s an artificial method ruling out contraception changes things here.

But even if we accept your point here, I think there’s a larger question worth asking. Say our sexual relationship with our spouse has to include unification and the possibility of fertility - that if you’re only aiming for one, you’re not getting the whole picture. Does that mean that every single instance of sex has to be open to both those roles? Because I can imagine a couple being open to fertility in general without that meaning every time they have sex, them desiring conception at that point in time. Maybe they have more children than they can afford to support well at that particular point in time. Maybe they are older (but not yet infertile), or there are health problems making it questionable whether both parents would survive another twenty years.

Another issue worth asking is whether we can support contraception in some circumstances pragmatically - I mean, the idea that sex should really be restricted to marriage but if you’re not going to do that it should certainly be done with (non-abortifacient) contraception, to fight the spread of disease and limit the number of unwanted pregnancies that are more likely to end as abortions. I think we can recognize that that sex is immoral without losing fight of the fact that it’s even worse to have sex that could lead to abortion or possibly serious STDs, including AIDS.

All of these concerns are precisely why we need to be having this conversation. Also, why a statement along the lines of “All contraception is permissible” or “All contraception is wrong” probably isn’t recognizing the complexity of this issue and all the way it affects human life (and so all the ways in which our Christian ethics need to address it.) Thanks for the reminder of how important this question is for Protestants as well as Catholics.

We already have the ability to control the existence or non existence of our potential children.  We do so by choosing whether or not to have sex at a given moment at all.

Marta is correct on how a procreative requirement for sex would leave non procreative methods of sexual intercourse as sinful.  I have reason to believe there is not a procreative requirement at all.

Take oral sex for instance, this is not a procreative method of sexual intercourse.  If it were a sin to have oral sex, we can conclude it would have been addressed in the bible considering the fact that the bible addresses quite a few types of sinful sexual activity and most are more obscure and uncommon than oral sex.  I would bet my salvation that there was more oral sex going on in the Israelite camps than bestiality, yet for some reason God chose to address bestiality and not oral sex.  Why did he do this?  Probably because he didnt have any issues with oral sex.  Im thoroughly convinced oral sex is acceptable, which leaves me thoroughly convinced that non procreative sex is acceptable, which leaves me thoroughly convinced that birth control is acceptable.

Now that doesnt mean we should avoid all procreation, the bible says that children are a blessing from God, and procreation is afterall a quality of natural sexual intercourse.  But I think its safe to say there isnt a procreative requirement, and therefore birth control is likely acceptable under some circumstances.  I dont know what the acceptable circumstances are though, id guess thats up to individual freedome and reasoning as well as God’s input in their prayer lives.

Just my 2 cents :)

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